Pastels. From Millet to Redon

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Pastels. De Millet à Redon

Paris, Musée d’Orsay, from 14 March to 2 July 2023.

No, blurring is not the essence of pastel. It would be absurd to consider that this coloured stick is only good for reproducing "anything pink, silk or gauze". And the landscape painter Camille Flers added: "It is because we did not ask more of it, that we were mistaken about its scope and its value [1]."
Many artists of the 19th century were nevertheless able to brilliantly exploit the resources of pastel, which gives the possibility of associating line and colour in one gesture. Made of chalk, pure pigments and gum arabic, it is clean, easy to transport, requires no preparation and allows dry work that can be interrupted and resumed.
Its weak point? Pastel works are too fragile to be exhibited permanently and are often relegated to storage. This is why the Musée d’Orsay has decided to highlight them: it is exhibiting about a hundred of the 500 or so in its collection to show that pastels enjoyed a second golden age in the 19th century. Great names, such as Edgar Degas and Odilon Redon, rub shoulders with lesser-known pastelists such as Louise Breslau, Émile Lévy and Jean-Marie Faverjon, author of an astonishing trompe l’oeil self-portrait (ill. 1). We will not know more about this man from Saint-Étienne. This is one of the weaknesses of the catalogue: it does not devote detailed notes to all the works and says nothing about the artists exhibited. Similarly, within the exhibition, some labels carry a comment and others are not.

1. Jean-Marie Faverjon (1823-1873)
Selfportrait in trompe l’oeil, c. 1868,
Pastel, graphite, gold paint on gouache paper - 56.5 x 46.5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo: RMN-GP/H. Lewandowski
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Pastels were used as early as the 15th century to enhance drawings with colour. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have discovered this technique through contact with Jean Perréal. However, it was in the 18th century that it became established and independent, mainly in the art of portraiture, brilliantly practised by Rosalba Carriera or Maurice Quentin de La Tour, without however being considered as the equal of painting.
It experienced a new boom in the second half of the 19th century. The number of colours available increased: from less than fifty in the 18th century, there were several hundred in the 19th century, and more than a thousand in 1914. Synthetic pigments offered greater chromatic variations, while new media were specifically designed to make pastels hold better and last longer. These were dry pastels only, with oil pastels only appearing in the 1920s. Artists became more confident in this technique and the creation in 1885 of the Société des pastellistes français testified to this emulation.

2. Émile Lévy (1826-1890)
Portrait of Marie de Heredia, 1887
Pastel - 118.5 x 86.0 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo: RMN-GP/H. Lewandowski
See the image in its page

The thematic tour opens with the tradition of portraiture that 19th century artists kept alive by adapting to the evolution of society and the advent of the bourgeoisie. In the portrait of her sister, Berthe Morisot explores the material effects that this medium allows: wet pastel applied in thickness for the face, brushed for the floral motifs of the sofa, and flat for the background. Émile Levy represented Marie de Heredia (ill. 2), wife of the poet Henri de Régnier and daughter of José Maria de Heredia, who praised the pastelist’s ability to handle "pastel versicolour... without tarnishing its flower, its velvety down, its brilliant dust of butterfly wing". Marie de Heredia, whose pen name was Gérard d’Houville, was the first woman to win a literature prize at the Académie Française in 1918.
But artists went beyond the portrait genre and took advantage of the freedom that pastels gave them to enter interiors and capture moments of intimacy, obtaining scenes whose spontaneity is sometimes carefully prepared. Mary Cassatt and Éva Gonzalès captured the gracefulness of family moments and maternal tenderness, while Édouard Vuillard spiced up everyday scenes with bold framing and shots that blend into each other and disrupt the perception of space.
Pastel is also the ideal technique for translating the velvety texture of the skin. Degas thus seems to catch women completely naked, busy with their toilet; but their sensuality is undermined by their often prosaic pose. He is one of the most represented artists in this exhibition. It must be said that he gave up painting to devote himself to pastel, from which he made numerous experiments, with tracings and monotypes; he worked it dry or wet, and mixed it with other techniques such as tempera.

3. Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)
The Churner, c. 1866,
Pastel and black pencil on brown paper and canvas - 122 x 85.5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo: RMN-GP/P. Schmidt
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Far from the city girls crouching in their tubs, Millet’s peasant women bend over in the fields. The importance of this artist is often forgotten, he who used pastel from the 1860s onwards, to translate the dignity of the peasants. The Churner stands in large format (ill. 3); there is nothing vaporous about this solid figure, first defined in black pencil, then enhanced with colour, with a palette reduced to warm, brown tones.
The pastel also facilitated the work of landscape artists who wanted to work on the motif to capture atmospheric moments and the changing colours of nature. Boudin was the first to make studies of clouds, which Baudelaire admired. Monet made only moderate use of pastels; he resorted to them in particular to capture the effects of fog on the Thames with a range admirably restricted to blue and white.

4. George Desvallières (1861-1950)
Bowmen, 1895
Pastel - 137.5 x 227.5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo: RMN-GP/P. Schmidt
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But pastel was not only the medium of modernity, serving contemporary subjects and quick work on small and medium formats. It was used by artists who wanted to return to a certain idealism, to a timeless Acadian world. Alphonse Osbert, in search of a spiritual art, was influenced by Puvis de Chavannes and painted landscapes filled with muses and bathed in light. George Desvallières painted athletic yet graceful male nudes in a large pastel composition entitled The Bowmen (ill. 4). In the sky, their targets flap their wings. The theme is reminiscent of the myth of Hercules and the carnivorous birds of Lake Stymphalus. Desvallières was influenced by two very different masters, Jules-Élie Delaunay, who gave him an academic training, and Gustave Moreau, who instilled in him a certain taste for strange and abundant compositions. These Bowmen could be seen in the retrospective devoted to the painter by the Petit Palais in 2016 (see article).

5. Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865-1953)
Méduse ou Vague furieuse, 1897
Pastel et fusain sur papier contrecollé sur carton - 59 x 40 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN-GP/H. Lewandowski
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The last section displays numerous works by Odilon Redon, another leading artist in this exhibition: far from the heavy and tired bodies of Degas’ young girls, he used pastel to translate a dreamlike world. The Grand Palais exhibition presented him as the "Prince of Dreams" (see article). After the darkness of charcoal, he embraced colour and converted to pastel in the 1890s, without being able to go back.
The Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition also highlights another artist associated with Symbolism, who is probably less well known to the general public: Lévy-Dhurmer, whose varied work can be found in the various sections: His landscapes of the Calanque or Lake Geneva, reduced to sparkling blues and whites, have a supernatural dimension; his portraits, inspired by those of the Renaissance, are tinged with mystery, as is the case, for example, with Woman with a Medal presented in profile, for which he surprisingly chose a horizontal format that can also be found in the portraits of Georges Rodenbach and Pierre Loti (see article) Finally, Medusa or Furious Wave seems to convey a vision, or even a nightmare, evoking the despair of a creature engulfed by the waves (ill. 5).

6. Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865-1953)
The Silence, 1895
Pastel - 54 x 29 cm.
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo: RMN-GP/H. Lewandowski
See the image in its page

Initially a ceramist, Lucien Lévy exhibited porcelain and ceramics at the Salon from 1882. But he also practised painting and especially pastels, and took part in the collective exhibition of the "Peintres de l’âme" in 1894, alongside Edmond Aman-Jean, Émile-René Ménard and Alphonse Osbert, whose pastels can be seen at Orsay. In 1896, he exhibited for the first time at the Galerie Georges Petit under the name of Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer. Sixteen pastels were shown out of the twenty-four or so works he had assembled, including the famous Silence (ill. 6) which he never parted with. For this composition he was inspired by the medallion sculpted by Auguste Préault for the tomb of Jacob Robles in the Père-Lachaise cemetery. Perhaps he was also influenced by the poems of his friend Georges Rodenbach, notably "Le règne du silence" (1891): "And since the night is coming, - I am sleepy to die".

<Curator: Caroline Corbeau-Parsons

Under the direction of Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Pastels, Coédition RMN-GP/Musée d’Orsay, 2023, 144 p., 29 €, ISBN: 9782711879878

Practical information: Musée d’Orsay, 1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur 75007 Paris. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 am to 6 pm, until 9:45 pm on Thursday. Price: €16 (reduced: €13).

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